Satish Kumar's life is an amazing story. Not surprisingly, his latest book, released by former cabinet secretary B G Deshmukh in Mumbai on December 17, is titled, No Destinations.
"It doesn't mean that I have no destination but that I keep acquiring new destinations," explained Satish Kumar to the audience that had gathered to hear him speak about his work and his life.
For the record, Satish Kumar is editor of Resurgence, a magazine on ecology, and programme director of Schumacher College, a centre for the study of ecology and spiritual values.
But these credits hardly capture the essence of the man. Satish Kumar is on a lifelong journey and the journey is still on.
At age four, shocked at the death of his father, he pondered the meaning of life and joined the wandering Jain munis (monks) at age nine. "For the next nine years, I wandered with the Jain munis in search of liberation from birth and death," he recalled. What he did find, instead, were questions about this kind of living style.
Satish Kumar, who hails from Rajasthan, found himself affected by Gandhi's message that instead of renouncing life and cursing evils, a true monk is he who lives among the people doing good work. "I decided to practise spirituality in everyday life," he said. Satish Kumar joined Vinoba Bhave, a Gandhian who was actively involved in the land reforms movement.
Over the years, he would accompany Vinoba Bhave on his padyatras (marches) across rural India. And in the process became a complete disciple of Gandhian ideology, committed to life, non-violence, and holistic living.
Then occurred an event in 1962 that would change his life. "Bertrand Russell was jailed because he was fighting for peace," he said. "My friend, E P Menon, and I decided to walk for peace to Moscow, Paris, London, and Washington DC [the capitals of the then four nuclear powers]."
While Vinoba Bhave blessed their endeavour, he said that any such effort must win the trust of the people. And to win the trust, he told them to walk without money.
"We walked 8,000 miles across Eurasia, and everywhere we were welcomed by the people," he said. Satish Kumar and Menon walked through Pakistan, Iran, Soviet Union (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia), Poland, central Europe, France, and then to the United Kingdom.
"Russell, who was 92 years old, welcomed us," said Satish Kumar.
Europe in the 1960s was in turmoil. And in the midst of the upheavals, Satish Kumar met the man who would become his mentor and friend, E M Schumacher. "People think the green movement is new, but way back in 1973,
Satish Kumar had found his calling: sustainable development that put people, not profits, at the centre. "Nature is our capital, and humans are a part of nature. Nature is us," he told the captivated audience. "That is the fundamental idea behind sustainable business."
Satish Kumar warned against the present exploitative economics. "Please understand, I am not against profits. Profits are needed for businesses. But let us not mix that with the exploitation of society and nature."
He said it was imperative that sustainability comes to the top of the agenda. "Let the world not confuse prosperity with money," he added, and warned, "Any business not worried about sustainability today is living in the 19th and 20th centuries, not in the 21st."
He pointed out that people often wondered how mere individuals could take on large corporations, but said such an anxiety was misleading. "On February 15 this year, The New York Times in an article said the world has two superpowers: the US and public opinion. We are that second superpower," he said.
He exhorted the audience to build public opinion that could cause even the biggest and most powerful to heed their voice.
Giving an example, he said that under pressure from environmental bodies, in Germany today it was mandatory for all new houses to have rainwater-harvesting schemes. "All we need are such policies that gives back to nature what we take from her," he said.
Later, speaking to rediff.com, he said that the current economic process was akin to cutting the branch that the person was sitting upon.
Speaking about the ability of the individual to change the world if he so desired, he pointed out that all his achievements were against huge odds. "I was illiterate but I learnt to read and write. I couldn't read or write English, now I edit an English magazine. It shows that if we want, we can do a lot with our lives and thus contribute to society," he said.
He said one reason that peace advocates were also supporters of environmentalist causes was because both required the individual to respect differences.
Finally, asked why he as a Gandhian had chosen to work in England and not India, he said it was on the advice of his mentor. "Schumacher told me that India has enough Gandhians but England has none and told me to spread Gandhian values in England. Hence I stayed on," he said.